Samsung’s CMO Says Note 7 Battery ‘Bump in the Road’ Sparked the Campaign for Its New Smartphone

Marketing aims to rebuild trust and show it's learned from mistakes

The company unveiled its highly anticipated new phone today. Samsung
Headshot of Marty Swant

Last fall, Samsung faced potentially the biggest crisis it’s ever faced as a brand, when a design flaw caused batteries in its brand-new Galaxy Note 7 smartphones to catch fire.

But now, on the launch day of its next flagship phone, the brand seems to have learned from its mistakes, ending a tumultuous six months that included recalling 3 million Note 7s and costing the company around $5.5 billion, according to some estimates.

However, Samsung really seems to have chosen not to ignore the past, but to humbly and confidently learn from it, creating focus groups with former Note 7 owners and instituting an eight-point battery safety check. It even ran several commercials during the Oscars that committed the company to safety while also honoring the unsung creators who don’t live in Hollywood.

In other words, Samsung was doing everything it could to show users and nonusers alike that it had learned from its mistakes and could be trusted again.

u201cThere are certain things we probably wouldnu2019t have done over the last three to four months if we didnu2019t have the bump in the road last year."
Marc Mathieu, Samsung North America chief marketing officer

“There are certain things we probably wouldn’t have done over the last three to four months if we didn’t have the bump in the road last year,” Samsung North America chief marketing officer Marc Mathieu told Adweek. “It forces you to develop a new muscle and to react in a way where on one hand, you need to rebuild confidence, but you also need to be very humble, very human.”

Today, that test of trust began again in earnest, as Samsung debuted the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+. It’s also debuting its most ambitious marketing campaign yet with a series of spots created with R/GA, Turner Duckworth, Leo Burnett and Wieden + Kennedy.

“I think the whole idea fundamentally is creating a campaign where some of the headlines were both very human and very real, which are both words we use internally as part of our marketing play, but also iconic,” Mathieu said.

The commercials have a Zen-like feel, using nature as a backdrop to showcase technological innovation. Each highlights the phone’s “infinity screen,” a curved display that takes up nearly the entire face of the phone. In each of the four spots, Samsung uses the Galaxy S8 as a frame of its own within various environments to portray how the infinity screen provides a window onto the world. One features a school of fish, seeming to congregate within the screen before spilling out into the ocean. Another has butterflies spreading apart from the trunk of a tree. A third shows a scuba diver photographing a whale, contrasting the minuscule nature of man with the vastness of the deep blue sea.

 “We’re really going to play on this visual of there is no boundary anymore between the phone and the world around you,” Mathieu said.

Another ad from the campaign, a 60-second spot, focuses on the phone’s main features like updated cameras, newly introduced iris and facial recognition and, of course, the infinity screen.

Over the next few months, the campaign will roll out in three phases, with the nature series debuting at launch, followed by others focusing more on the regular people and content creators who use the products. There will also be out-of-home activations and partnerships with YouTube creators that will debut in the coming weeks and months.

Samsung has its work cut out. Not only is it competing with its past, but it will also be setting the bar for a competitive year of flagship smartphones from rivals including Apple and Google. Because none of Samsung’s devices before the Note 7 had battery problems, most owners will see it as an isolated incident, said Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research. However, newer converts will be harder to convince.

Neil Shah, research director at Counterpoint Research, said Samsung needs to first assure users that its design choices and components won’t have any unwanted side effects like the last one.

“Samsung is in an unfortunate position where it has to first answer about what changes they have made since the Note 7 debacle so that the history doesn’t repeat itself,” Shah said.

In addition to the spots rolling out this week, Samsung plans to once again adopt its “Do What You Can’t” tagline. That’s been a key theme over the past several years for the brand. During the 2017 Oscars, Samsung ran a commercial featuring filmmaker and YouTube star Casey Neistat.

Neistat, who has been a key influencer for Samsung for the Gear 360 camera, introduced Hollywood to “The Rest of Us,” heralding modern-day content creators who often make films and photos with nothing but a phone and a laptop.

“That’s basically what Casey Neistat taught us a year ago when we brought him to the Oscars,” Mathieu said. “He didn’t really completely fit, you know? He said it was really odd to be there, and then you had a lot of people who couldn’t care less about some of the celebrities and then who saw Casey and said, ‘Hey, can I have an autograph?’ And then you have all the other guys that said, ‘Who is this guy?’ And so the idea that there is a ‘rest of us’ in every single vertical is something we’re really excited about.”

Tonight, at Lincoln Center, Neistat will give content creators and others a sneak peek at Samsung’s newest products, while aiming to inspire through conversations with fellow YouTubers and also director Spike Jonze.

“That’s the generation we want to celebrate,” Mathieu said. “These people who are fundamentally willing and confident that they can unlock potential, ‘do what they can’t’ and be who other people say they can’t be.”

@martyswant Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.